Background: Patients with luminal HER2-negative tumours have a favourable prognosis. However, there is a subpopulation in which poorer outcomes are obtained with endocrine therapy alone. This subpopulation is considered to benefit from chemotherapy. However, the significance of chemotherapy for those with luminal tumours has decreased due to recent changes in treatment strategies. Thus, it is often difficult to determine whether we should recommend chemotherapy to such patients in clinical practice. We investigated Ki67 expression, as a means of predicting the responses of luminal HER2-negative breast cancer patients to neo-adjuvant chemotherapy (NAC), in order to identify a subpopulation that would benefit from these treatments. Methods: We enrolled 114 luminal HER2-negative breast cancer patients undergoing surgery after NAC. Biomarkers were examined using biopsy specimens obtained prior to treatment, to avoid any chemotherapy-related effects. Chemotherapy effects were determined employing operative specimens and we defined pathological complete response (pCR) as invasive nest disappearance, based only on the primary breast tumour. We applied receiver operating characteristic curve analysis to data from our 114 patients, to investigate Ki67 expression as a predictor of pCR. Results: The pCR rate was significantly higher for tumours with high Ki67 expression (p < 0.01) and all patients who obtained pCR remained recurrence-free during the median 58-month observation period. We identified 35% as the Ki67 cut-off value which distinguishes those with a pCR from other cases. Another dataset, comprised of 196 patients with a median 29-month observation period, was recruited for validation. Disease-free survival was found to be significantly (p < 0.01) lower in the patients with tumours in which Ki67 expression was higher than 35%. Conclusion: Our results raise the possibility of the luminal HER2-negative subpopulation with Ki67 expression higher than 35% benefiting from chemotherapy, as evidenced by improved survival. Electronic supplementary material: The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/1471-2407-14-550) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.